Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Who's on First?
Roughly a year ago now, a friend of mine had a great idea for her birthday party. She'd thrown some great bashes before, but for this one she decided to hold a talent show. It was especially appropriate since she's spent her life working in theater and film. A mutual friend suggested we perform "Who's On First?" for the occasion.
When I was a young kid, my dad used to check out short films from the local library and show it on an old projector of his. Unlike the projectors in our school, it had to be manually threaded, which could take a while. In any case, it was a great choice for birthday parties or Saturday entertainment, and meant we grew up with some of the Laurel and Hardy greats. Meanwhile, although this was just before the cable era really hit, Marx Brothers films were often shown on TV (unfailingly on New Year's or thereabouts) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein made it on quite often as well. (Chaplin and Buster Keaton were rarely shown for some reason, and I've never much cared for most of the Three Stooges stuff.)
In any case, it was a real treat to dig into one of the great comedy sketches. Abbott and Costello didn't originate most of their old vaudeville routines, but they were probably the best at performing them. It's also interesting that it's completely clean (barring maybe the last lines). As kids we thought the word play (and Costello's frustration) was hilarious, but adults love it too. What makes "Who's On First?" a bit tricky to rehearse is that there's no one set script. Abbott and Costello varied it a bit each time. I hunted down some of the best.
Here's the version [6:54] we would up using, from a TV appearance in front of a live audience. It's probably my favorite. This version is featured on some old Abbott and Costello specials and compilations. I taped mine off of PBS years ago, and it turns out my friend's transcript, that he had typed up himself as a teenager from an audio tape, was the same version. Unfortunately, the sound drifts out of synch on the only YouTube copy I could find, but it's still a great listen:
Here's the transcript, via my buddy.
Here's the version [6:16] from the film The Naughty Nineties. This is the one that's in the Baseball Hall of Fame. It's probably the tightest and cleanest version available, although there's no live audience as there is for the other versions, so you won't hear any laughs. (Comedy is best seen with an audience.) The actual sketch starts after about a minute of setup:
Here's the transcript.
Here's another TV version [6:09], which many folks have posted to YouTube. The video ain't great, but it's in synch and a very good version with a breakneck pace:
I couldn't find a transcript of this version.
Here's a radio version [4:28], supposedly the first time they performed it on the air. The speed is astounding:
Here's the transcript.
Here's a cute, short "typography" version:
The Wiki entry on "Who's On First?" is quite good, especially at listing variations and homages to the sketch (The Simpsons one, with Principal Skinner killing the whole sketch at the start, is a classic on its own). I also found a long but interesting pseudo-Shakespearean version:
Abbott and Costello
Many accounts say that Abbott and Costello performed the sketch hundreds if not thousands of times. I was disappointed that some accounts claim they were scared to try new material, since I'm used to the idea of great performers not being content to rest on their laurels, and some of their other sketches are pretty damn funny as well. The two were hit hard by taxes due to their meteoric success, were estranged for a time, and this interview with Bud Abbott from 1960 is quite sad. (Molière and Bulgakov had pretty rough lives, too.) All that said, their performances were truly great, for the ages and a hell of a legacy, and we can all be grateful for that.
I know some people hate to analyze comedy. I agree that if a comedian has to explain the joke to the audience, it's trouble. There's an element to comedy that's just instinctual and subjective, and you either get it, or you don't. And tastes do vary. I'm not going to explain why "Who's on First?" is funny. Most people understand why, and more importantly, they laugh.
However, for performers, writers and directors, comedy sometimes does require more scrutiny and more work. I'm going to write a bit about the sketch itself and the experience of rehearsing and performing it. Feel free just to enjoy the videos, and stop reading now, if you like!
Perhaps the most interesting part of studying versions of the script was discovering that it's not really one set routine. It's a set of "subroutines." For most of the sketch Lou Costello took the lead and Bud Abbott played off him reactively. Even if the exchanges were fairly set, when you realize the exact script wasn't fixed, Abbott and Costello's performances become even more impressive, especially given their speed. Robin Williams in his coked-out days comes close, but damn, they're quick.
The exact content of the "subroutines" varied, and their order could even vary slightly in the middle, but roughly it goes:
Intro Setup (this varies from version to version)
The Roster (Abbott lays out the roster a few times)
Who's on First (the core gag)
What's on Second (they start riffing on the 3 basemen)
Paycheck (How does the first baseman sign his name?)
The Outfield (Why and Because)
The Pitching Staff (Tomorrow and Today)
Naturally (Costello tries to sum up, gets even more confused)
Finale (Costello tries to finish — I don't give a darn)
In the version we recreated, for example, you can hear Costello bulldozing over Abbott to push the sketch to the Paycheck section, but it all works.
The Rehearsal Process
There's a saying that everyone believes he or she is a great lover and has a good sense of humor. Needless to say, they're not all right. There are various theories about comedy floating around, but for my money (and I could go on at some length) some are horribly narrow and simplistic, most of all because there are different forms and styles of comedy.
Still — and this is something some "method" actors don't get readily — writing, directing, and acting comedy can at times be very, very technical. For writers, after the basic scene works, there's still a process of revision and word choice, paring things down to be tight. For directors, there's the matter of staging things, and working on the overall rhythm of a scene, the shifts, builds and reversals. And for performers, there's above all comic timing. Some forms of comedy require more of an "internal life" or can benefit from that, but in most cases the external mechanics have to be set first. That's especially the case for physical comedy and sight gags. Some actors don't have innate comic timing, but can memorize or respond to a rhythm. Similarly, when it comes to line delivery, sometimes the best way is apparent right off the bat, and sometimes finding it requires trial and error. All that's part of the process. (I do have a few stories about actors deliberately screwing up comedic bits that had gotten big laughs, all in the name of "acting," though!) I don't pretend to be a master of comedy by any stretch, but I have written, directed or performed in a fair number over the years, so I'm fairly aware of my limitations — and slighter talents — in that arena. (My stage fright used to be so bad I used to want to run off screaming right before going on, and while it's much better now, I prefer directing, and would say I generally still enjoy having performed more than I enjoy performing itself, and certainly more than waiting to go on.)
In any case, since my buddy's the better actor (and quite good), we quickly decided he'd do Costello's part. While Abbott's part ain't easy, I have to say for my money Costello's is much harder. He leads almost everything. He has far more verbiage, and if you listen to Lou Costello, he speaks with amazing rapidity but perfect diction. It's very impressive.
After running the scene a few times at the first rehearsal, I found the best way for me to learn the piece was to listen to it over and over and over again (my former blogmate Jim Swanson was kind enough to make me a MP3 from the YouTube video). I listened to it at home and in the car, and it took me about a day to get it memorized. There are a few tricky, snag spots, but I actually found it surprisingly easy, perhaps because for Abbott, much of it comes down to, "If Costello says this, you say that." For Abbott's part, I found it could be helpful actually to visualize the baseball diamond and the names of the players at each position. Costello's asking him questions, and as the straight man, he's just answering them straight.
I was a bit worried that studying the sketch this intensely would rob it of its humor for me, or alternatively, that I'd crack up during the performance. There's also the threat of drying up on a line, or just sucking. It'd be a crime to butcher such a great sketch. At the second rehearsal, I was concentrating so hard on getting the responses right, I wasn't cracking up at all. At the third, though, when we were both off book, and looking at each other, playing off each other, it was much harder to keep a straight face (for me, at least). The sketch is just so damn funny and the disconnect between the characters so ridiculous. And Abbott has to play it straight! (The British have a great expression for breaking character — "corpsing.")
In any case, I'm a big fan of drilling to get the fine timing and the rhythms down, and with this sketch, the responses have to be so lightning-fast, they really need to be automatic. And on the comic timing thing — I found it very educational just listening to Abbott and Costello over and over again, in my case paying special attention to Abbott's choices (mostly as quick a response as he could manage, pouncing as soon as Costello was done, but with some notable pauses in the Paycheck section, when he sets the rhythm briefly). Damn, they were brilliant on that front, and I think anyone who really wants to get down comic timing should study them, Sid Caesar's show and some of the other older acts, along with their favorite stand-up comics, sitcoms and comedy films.
Talent Show Birthday Night featured plenty of singing, with the birthday gal's parents and brother singing tunes, her daughter and other former students performing pieces she'd taught them, her young son MC-ing, many friends and guests performing, a young kid doing a Shakespeare monologue, a young woman with a Mohawk doing a hula dance... The atmosphere was inviting and encouraging, an everyone-join-in mood, but I have to say, plenty of folks were quite talented and memorable. In our case, we went with our own names versus Abbott and Costello, and apart from one brief snag in the sketch performance, it was rapid-fire and went over very well with our admittedly friendly, captive crowd. We received some very nice compliments, but of course no one can touch Abbott and Costello doing it. It was a wonderful, lovely night, actually, and a splendid time was had by all.
Two added, bizarre notes. Knowing the birthday gal, we figured she'd like the sketch, but she gave a big gasp when she realized what the sketch was (that'll give ya a momentary fright!). It turns out it's her all-time favorite, or right up there. What was even crazier was her mother had actually gone out with Lou Costello a few times as a young woman! We had no idea. Small world.
In any case, I felt like providing at least one lighter post today. Thanks to all the great comedy writers, directors and performers, and thanks to those adults wise enough to introduce their kids to that material and the beauty of a good laugh.